A Sermon for Sunday, December 22, 2019. Emory Presbyterian Church. The Fourth Sunday of Advent. Matthew 1:18-25.
Of all the characters in the Nativity, there is one who doesn’t quite stand out like the rest or garner the same attention as others: Joseph, the husband of Mary and the surrogate father of Jesus.
Joseph, writes James Howell, a United Methodist pastor in Charlotte, North Carolina, “stands in the background of Christmas pageants, looking on, not doing much besides gazing (or hanging on to the donkey), his face solemn, looking a little bit sheepish, even foolish, while attention is focused on the real stars of the drama: Jesus and Mary.”
This observation also applies to many Christmas cards and films about the Holy Family. Joseph is an enigmatic figure who stands just enough out of the spotlight for us to nearly forget his role in the story. We don’t even sing about him during this season. Within the vast and deep treasury of Christmas music, there’s not one familiar hymn or popular Christmas carol written about Joseph, except for two alternative rock songs which are only known by pop culture neophiles like me.
The scriptures don’t say a lot about him either. John’s Gospel never mentions Joseph. Mark’s Gospel refers to him only as the carpenter dad of Jesus. And Matthew and Luke’s Gospels briefly include him in the events of Jesus’ birth and early childhood—a handful of verses that are void of any of Joseph’s thoughts, feelings or words. By the third chapter of Matthew and Luke, he disappears entirely and the reader is never told why.
However, what little there is in Matthew’s gospel about Joseph tells us much about the person God chooses to be a protector of love.
The gospel writer emphasizes that Joseph is a “righteous man,” which means he is familiar with brutal laws like Deuteronomy 22:20-27 that says: if a man discovers that the woman he has just married or betrothed is not a virgin, “the men of her town shall stone her to death.” As such, Joseph is motivated by compassion to keep Mary’s miraculous pregnancy secret so that she is not publicly mocked and then killed in an act of mob justice for perceived infidelity.
Some preachers and scholars suspect that Joseph treats Deuteronomy 22 with less importance than passages like Micah 6:8: “Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God.” As one commentary puts it: “Against the shadows of hateful violence dressed up as law, Joseph acts with merciful love.”
The angel, though, tells Joseph that while his intentions to quietly dismiss Mary are noble, he doesn’t need to fear or worry for her safety. All is going according to God’s plan. Mary’s pregnancy is fulfilling the words God spoke to the prophet Isaiah: “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him ‘Emmanuel,’ which means, ‘God is with us.’” Joseph is to show courage in his commitment to the baby and Mary no matter how much their neighbors whisper and roll their eyes about how the young woman is pregnant out of wedlock. And he is to not let the knowledge that the child is from the Holy Spirit make him afraid to get married. Furthermore, Joseph is to name the child, Jesus which means, “God saves.”
Joseph is assured by the angel that he has an important role to play by welcoming the baby into his lineage, naming and raising him and being a supportive husband to Mary in spite of Deuteronomic law and people’s judgments. Joseph is given the enormous responsibility of helping to care for and love a child who is not his own and who happens to be “The God who saves is with us”—the source and embodiment of Love!
Understandably, Joseph, upon waking from his dream, is probably still a bit worried and frightened by the angel’s instructions. He’s no longer concerned about Mary’s fate, but is likely feeling anxious about being the stepfather of God’s child—of God becoming human from birth. He’s likely pondering the Isaiah scripture and thinking: “Doesn’t the vision feature a woman and child, and not a married couple? What in the world could I, an ordinary man, offer to someone who is fully human and fully divine?” Quite possibly he’s also bewildered that God would come so near and in the most vulnerable form imaginable.
Wouldn’t any of us be anxious and bewildered if we were in Joseph’s shoes?
More than a decade ago, while pregnant with our daughter Katie, Elizabeth received a stack of children’s books as a gift from a friend. Among them was one entitled, Father and Son: A Nativity Story by Geraldine McCaughrean and Fabian Negrin.
Last week, I shared the book with our 6-year-old son, Davis, who has been really exuberant lately about Christmas and Jesus’ birth story. He was particularly mesmerized by Father and Son because of the unique way in which it tells the story of the Holy Family’s first night in the stable in Bethlehem—imagining what Joseph might have thought and felt about becoming the stepfather to Jesus. As I read to Davis, I felt a deeper appreciation for Joseph and his role as a protector of love; and I also gained wonderful insight about one of the parts we are to play every Christmas as we approach the manger.
After the star had set, after the angels had roosted, after the shepherds had hurried back to their sleep, there was one person still awake in the dark stable.
Joseph sat watching the baby asleep in a manger of straw.
“Mine, but not mine,” he whispered. “How am I supposed to stand in for your real Father? How is a simple man like me to bring up the Son of God? …
“How can I teach him the Scriptures? It will be like reading him a book he wrote himself! What stories can I tell him? He wrote the whole history of the world.
“What jokes? He knows them all. Didn’t he invent the hilarious hippopotamus and make the rivers gurgle with laughter? Didn’t he form the first face, wink, and make it smile? …
“And how shall I ever astound you, child, as my father did me? You are the one who fitted the chicken into the egg and the oak tree into an acorn! …
“What shall I pass down to you, little one, apart from a world of Love? Not as much as the color of my eyes. Not even my name.
“And yet…I’ve been thinking, child…My hands are strong, God knows. And everyone needs an extra pair of hands from time to time. So that’s what I’ll give you, son. That’s what I’ll be, God willing. A helping hand.” …
My friends, do not be afraid. Joseph and Mary will have a son and he will be Emmanuel, God-with-us, and Joseph will name him Jesus, God-saves-us. Do not be anxious. Love in the flesh is coming to dwell among us. And we are called to lend a hand to Love and courageously carry it through broken and hurting places to help others, so that the world may one day be transformed and healed.
Just as Joseph did.
 Joseph, Who Understood by The New Pornographers, 2007 and Joseph, Better You Than Me by The Killers, 2008.
 Father & Son: A Nativity Story by Geraldine McCaughrean and Fabian Negrin, Hyperion Books, 2006. For reasons of copyright, I’m only including part of the text in the sermon manuscript.